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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Dartmouth December

Originally published on Blogspot by Gethin Thomas on the 19th December 2021

A quick flying visit to Dartmouth in December. What a different town to Dartmouth in summer. There is still a fair bit of boat activity, mostly ferries plying their trade back and forth across the Dart right here where it meets the sea. I say meets the sea, not enters the sea, because there is a bit of a contest between the two as to which is meeting which, depending on the tides.

The Dart here is a Ria not an estuary, so as a sunken, or flooded river valley the sea rushes in twice a day as far inland as Totnes. So you can be looking at the sea flowing right to left or the river flowing left to right. In fact if you have a mind to, and know the tide times you can watch a tethered boat slowly move from pointing in one direction to the other as the tide changes direction. Because of the very large tidal range, floating pontoons are the way to go, as they rise and fall as required. Here you can see the jetty is almost level indicating it is high tide. This is not a shot you would get in summer as there would be people coming and going constantly.

The other side of the river is Kingswear a small town mostly grown from being the access to Dartmouth. Even today after the two ferries at Dartmouth the next proper vehicle crossing is the bridge at Totnes, making quite a long route around. Kingswear is also as far as the rail network got in this area, so the terminus worked in conjunction with the ferries and there is even a Railway Station in Dartmouth that never saw a train or a platform, it did see a boat connection to Kingswear Station though. The railway at Kingswear is now a heritage steam railway, which at this time of year runs the famous Train Of Lights.

At the foot of Church Hill is the station, you can just make out a train.

The Church of St Thomas of Canterbury is situated in the village of Kingswear in the English county of Devon, it stands in a slightly elevated position at the junction of Higher Street and Church Hill close to the railway station and the Dartmouth Lower Ferry and overlooks the River Dart. The church is a grade II listed building. A church[1] has stood on the present site since about 1170 on land owned by the de Vasci family since the Norman Conquest.

The earliest deeds relating to the church were drawn up about 1173 and are in Totnes Priory: Willelmus de Vasci and his wife Juliana for the souls of their fathers and mothers and for the soul of Willelmus Buzun, give half the land of Kingeswere to Ricardus the deacon and to others succeeding him or serving the true God, Jesus Christ, and Saint Thomas there. By the license of lord Rogerus de Nunant whose fief the aforesaid land is and by the sanction of Wido de Nunant Renricus and Baldewinus. Ratified by the seal of lord Rogerus de Nunant and witnessed by Ricardus the chaplain, Johel de Waytord, Jordan de Hode, Robertus the serving man of Wido and the brothers of Martin.

In blue, next to the church, where else, is The Ship Inn, a pub since the 15th century. There is one other pub The Steam Packet Inn and the rather grand red brick, castle like, Village Hall. It is estimated up to 30% of dwellings are second homes.

Back in Dartmouth, this is the Lower Ferry with it's Doctor Doolittle system of Push me Pull you operation. The ferry is a powerless barge with a tug attached by ropes which changes direction for each crossing both pushing and pulling the barge while trying to battle the currents which keep changing direction.

In the background is Bayard's Cove the only part of the original quayside that is left. Due to the steep incline at the back of the town, large areas of land were reclaimed over time to create space for building. Most of the town that tourists are familiar with was once very wet and full of ships. If you want to find out where the made up land starts just go uphill and you have found the join. The flat bits are the new bits.

The reclamations of mud flats and wharves started in the 16th century and continued in phases up until as recently as the 1930's. So you can, with a bit of observation as you walk around, date parts of the town as 1930's and then Victorian and then older coming to the oldest buildings in a line marking the original quayside as you can still see here at Bayard's.

Dartmouth Hospital has occupied its current home on the South Embankment since 1894. But hospitals are so 1894 and now apparently we need Health and Wellbeing Centres so that is what the people of Dartmouth are getting, whether they like it or not. It's costing £4.8 million, but most importantly, building that somewhere else where people will have difficulty getting to, means we now have the most expensive plot of Real Estate available right on the embankment. If bids for community use fail which looks likely, of course it is likely, then this huge site will be sold in 2022 for redevelopment. It is unlikely that any site this large will ever come up for redevelopment again in Dartmouth.

I love the Wikipedia description of a Cottage Hospital. A cottage hospital is a semi-obsolete type of small hospital, most commonly found in the United Kingdom.

The original concept was a small rural building having several beds. The advantages of such a hospital in villages were the provision of care which avoided long journeys to county or voluntary hospitals, facilities to deal more immediately with emergencies, and familiarity the local physician might have with their patients that may affect their treatment. This local knowledge of the patient would probably have been lost had they been referred to their nearest county hospital, as was typical for poorer patients.

So this is where the narrative falls apart as it usually does these days. Thou shalt not have cars, if you have cars thou shalt not drive them, but we're selling the hospital to a supermarket so you will now have to travel to a super hospital an hour away. Your "physician" is online, working from home, currently in the Bahamas.

In all my years of going to Dartmouth I had never witnessed this sight before, but this is not a very busy street and you have to be here at the right time of day, when the Bird Lady of Dartmouth regularly comes downstairs to feed the birds.

The Bird Lady of Dartmouth (my name for her) has lived here for sixty years, that's why the pigeons are so fat. Now not very mobile, she comes downstairs once a day to sit, all wrapped up if it is cold, to feed the birds. Those of you who are Mary Poppins fans will not be surprised to find out that the feed is no longer "Tuppence a bag". We are talking "Best Pigeon Corn" from Dartmouth Market just around the corner as well as "Occasional Digestive Biscuits".

Stop here and say hello and you will get a life story, most of which I cannot relate here as there is no room. An hour later though I had discovered one coincidence, this lady used to travel the eight miles to my village in her youth to visit her boyfriend who it turns out lived in the house where my friends and neighbours now reside and where I recently went to a Halloween party.

This is where people went out into the world before air travel, and nowhere was too far, there was a whole world out there and they were going to see it and hopefully make a fortune. Even the Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers) on the Mayflower sailed past this castle to stop off on their way to The New World to plug a few leaks, at Bayard's Cove.

Here in some part of this building lived Thomas Gale, 1430-1496. He was a "Merchant and Collector of Customs". By that I think they mean he collected the duties off incoming boats he was not a Social Scientist who made notes about folk dancing or motifs in embroidery. He was a Member of Parliament under three different kings and seven times Mayor of Dartmouth. He was the Surveyor of the King's Officers for Devon and Cornwall and under Richard the Third he was Keeper of the King's Ships. No mean task in this part of Britain which was the front line of attack from France and Spain.

At Dartmouth Castle he armed the first tower in England built for the use of heavy guns. He was a very busy chap. It was because of chaps like him that we still speak English and not French or Spanish, no joke.

This building is what remains of a vast three winged medieval inn, which surrounded a courtyard no longer present. It extended out to where I am standing and had a defensive sea wall. Gale's Great Place was modified as recently as the 19th century during one of the phases mentioned above. At that point The Marine Tavern, sail lofts and shops still flourished in this wing. The other ranges, cellars and stables housed some 85 poor people. This part was then described as "pestilential hovels" and in 1906 they were levelled to form the street plan of today. I think they removed the 85 poor people first, but you never know.

The right hand lane on this road is the ferry queue for the Lower Ferry, the slipway to it the other side of this building. The blue sign on the wall requests " Please switch off vehicle engines whilst waiting for the ferry". Amazingly, all of this information about the early history was only discovered in 2015.

Close to the cobbled quayside where the Mayflower left for America in 1620, Bayards Cove Inn is one of the oldest buildings in Dartmouth, a 14th century Tudor inn that’s now a café bar and restaurant. Bayards Cove Inn is also known as Agincourt House and was built and named by a merchant in the 14th century after the battle of the same name. It has had many guises and upgrades during the past 600 or so years, gaining grade II listed status in 1949, and is the second oldest building in Dartmouth.

Agincourt House is one of the few remaining houses with the unusual ‘gallery and back block’ arrangement. This is an unusual floor plan peculiar to South West England, in which an accommodation block on the street front was joined to a kitchen block at the rear by a gallery that spans a courtyard lying between the two.

This Tudor fort, built by the borough of Dartmouth between 1522 and 1536, contained heavy guns to protect the prosperous harbour town from attack. It was the last line of defence against enemy ships that had eluded Dartmouth and Kingswear castles and the iron chain stretched across the Dart estuary between them. Occupying a terrace cut from the rocky river bank, Bayard’s Cove Fort is picturesquely sited at the entrance to Dartmouth harbour.

This is what I meant about going up hill. You can be sure this is old Dartmouth ahead.

Here is the Lower Ferry in operation and you can see the ropes attaching the tug to the barge.

A very 21st century visitor arriving at Kingswear, I doubt any plugging of leaks needed in this case. Maybe a re-gassing of the air conditioning perhaps? Or some tweaking of the electronics in the navigational systems? Perhaps some conditioning of the leather seats in the state rooms.

Here you can also see the ferry slipway the other side and if you have a spare £1.3 million you could have bought the white building on the left the former Royal Dart Hotel, now a residence. Actually, just a small piece of it, a 3 bed apartment, as it contains six residences. A 2 bed apartment would only set you back £800,000 just over a million dollars US. For that you get "open plan living", or as it used to be called everything in one room.

I keep coming across old thresholds like these with names from the past, or just decorated tiles. I think I may collect these as I travel around and put a set of them together.

Just to finish on a festive note I leave you with Christmas fudge with generic West Country views which could easily be Dartmouth. Or Kingswear.

And what better seasonal scene could I bring you from Dartmouth, other than a fisherman, in boots, climbing a "Christmas Tree" made of lobster pots and buoys. As they say around here "Proper Job".

With a backdrop of the Britannia Royal Naval College.

Last Thursday in another coincidence my other neighbour's granddaughter passed out at the college in the presence of Prince Charles.

HALF a century after he passed out of Britannia Royal Naval College, the Prince of Wales returned to salute a new generation of Royal Navy leaders. Prince Charles was guest of honour at the annual Lord High Admiral’s Divisions – the final passing out parade of the year at the spiritual home of Royal Navy Officer training in Dartmouth, Devon. He took the Royal Salute from the parade and was invited to inspect the passing out Divisions – a mix of 202 fresh Royal Navy Officer Cadets and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Officers, plus sailors commissioned from the ranks. For the Prince of Wales it was a reminder of the beginning of his five-year Royal Navy career. He passed through the same college doors on September 16 1971 – following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and both his great-grandfathers.

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